Since 1983 and the release of “A Nation at Risk,” public education has suffered scrutiny, criticism and outright derision unprecedented in American history. Those of us who chose to work in the field of education, either occupationally or by election, were maligned and accused of everything short of criminal activity. The school board has not escaped that fate.
One of our books quotes a former client who said: “Implementing this thing isn’t easy.”
We acknowledged him to be correct. The basic implementation processes, the commitment to focus on outcomes rather than strategies, the board’s pre-planning of its own work and agenda, the practice of actually governing from the level of policy rather than tinkering with stuff, can be a challenge. Perhaps most difficult is maintaining the personal and collective discipline to stay faithful to the governing system the board has created. Change goes against human nature.
Over the years we have worked with hundreds of boards to help them define and clarify board roles. We typically begin with a question asking the board to identify its number one responsibility. Nine times out of 10, boards tell us that policy development is their primary job.
Now, be honest: does your board govern by policy? Sure, you approve a new policy or amend an old one now and then, but do you truly govern your district by making policy-level decisions, or do you spend most of your time dealing with operational issues? Test your answer: mentally reconstruct your last board meeting agenda. How many policy actions did you take?
Between us, we have had more than 40 years’ experience in association management. That means that we have seen a fair number of boards of directors come and go.
But our experience with boards goes deeper than that, much deeper. Our membership during those 40 years was comprised of boards, in our case publicly elected school boards. Some would say that particular kind of board carries its own special brand of challenge, and we would not debate that. But the main point to be understood is that not only have we worked with and for our own boards of directors, but we also served boards as members, trying to help make them as effective as possible. In terms of board behavior, there isn’t much we haven’t seen first-hand.